Finally, on Sunday afternoon in Nashville, the Patriots will begin anew on another quest to bring the Vince Lombardi trophy back to Foxborough. It's a day that's been a long time coming and yes, you're allowed to dry your eyes with your Gronk jersey if the sight of the team running on to the field makes the room feel a little bit dusty.
In their way in Week 1 stands the Tennessee Titans, a sort of up-and-coming outfit in rebuilding mode, just two years past the Jeff Fisher era and featuring a second-year QB/former first-round pick in Jake Locker who will be making his first career start.
There are a handful of juicy sub headings to this game, not just involving how the Pats younger, faster defense will take on Locker but also how their offense, so regressed looking in the preseason, responds to what the Titans' D, particularly their pass rush, gives them.
So without any further ado, let's get into this game by taking a look at the most compelling match ups this game will have to offer.
When the Patriots pass the ball.
It's been some time since we've seen this offense clicking on all cylinders; you probably have to go back to last year's Divisional Round blowout of the Broncos to get your most recent glimpse of the kind of firepower the Pats have to offer.
Since then, we've seen a slowed down attack in the AFC Championship against Baltimore and in the Super Bowl against the Giants. And we've diddley poo in the preseason. In other words, this unit is primed for an explosion, especially now that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is back in the fold.
But will it happen? The Titans are a good defense for the Pats to face in attempting to get the rust off. As a unit, Tennessee ranked 18th in total defense and 14th against the pass. The Titans also allowed opposing pass catchers just 4.4 yards after the catch, a mark better than both Baltimore and Pittsburgh for the best in the league.
Yards after the catch is a huge part of the Pats' passing game. Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez, pretty much the team's top three receivers, combined for 3,806 receiving yards last year and each was in the league's top 10 in YAC.
But will Tom Brady have time to deliver these three, as well as new downfield threat Brandon Lloyd, the ball? The offensive line play in the preseason was at times excruciating, and that's being somewhat kind. Matt Light and Brian Waters (for now) are gone. Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer are coming off serious injuries. And last year's first round pick Nate Solder, looks like a work in progress protecting Brady's blind side.
The Titans rolled up just 28 sacks last year, second fewest in the league. They gave big free agent dollars to former Cleveland and Oakland defensive end Kamerion Wimbley in the offseason. Wimbley, a 6'4", 255 pound monster who has 42.5 sacks in his six years in the league, can play standing up or with a hand on the ground coming off the edge and should be a big test for Solder.
But after that, there's not much. Tennessee's first-rounder from 2010, defensive end Derrick Morgan, has been a disappointment thus far, with just 35 tackles and four sacks in 19 career games. And there are no jaw droppers in the linebacking corps either.
With time, Brady should be able to work on the Titans' secondary. Devin McCourty's twin brother Jason is their top corner and veteran Michale Griffin, a former All-Pro, is probably their best all-around defensive back. Don't be surprised if either of these two make a play here or there.
It shouldn't be enough, though. There should be plenty of room and time for Brady to fins his targets. And the Titans' 24th ranked run defense from a year ago could struggle enough with Stevan Ridley to give Brady even more flexibility.
When the Titans run the ball.
You can bet Tennessee will feature former 2,000 yard gainer Chris Johnson heavily in this one. Johnson had a bit of a down year last season following a training camp holdout and finished with just 1,047 yards on the ground, by far the fewest of his career. But with a full offseason and camp under his belt and a virtual rookie starting at QB, it seems a no-brainer that Johnson will be asked to carry much of the load on Sunday.
Johnson is as fast as running backs get. This is a guy who not only thinks he could beat Olympic champion Usain Bolt in the 40-yard dash, but that he could run it in less than four seconds on a track.
Whether or not either of those claims are true, Johnson is a pure burner. And he's quick as well, shifty and capable of making people miss both in the open field and between the tackles.
The Pats will be tasked with slowing him down. There's more speed on the edges of the Pats' front seven, but still not too much. Rookies Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower, along with veterans Jerod Mayo and Rob Ninkovich, will be tasked with getting off blocks and out past the numbers to try to keep Johnson toward the middle of the field.
If the Pats are able to contain him to the outside, Vince Wilfork and middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, easily their top two run stoppers, should have an easier time. Also, look for a fair amount of safety help in the effort to keep Johnson under wraps, particularly from newly acquired Steve Gregory and rookie second-rounder Tavon Wilson.
Making guys like Johnson work for what they get is no easy task. But assuming the Pats load up against it in an effort to make the inexperienced Locker beat them, it may not be as difficult.
When the Titans pass the ball.
In case anyone has forgotten, the Pats were mostly atrocious on defense last season, especially against the pass. In response, they brought in Gregory from San Diego, drafted Wilson and hope to get more out of second year man Ras-I (al-Ghul) Dowling than they got from him last year, which shouldn't be too hard (Dowling had three tackles in two games during his injury shortened season).
The same two corners who were torched, torched again and torched some more last year - Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington - are back, and while Arrington acquitted himself nicely at times, McCourty's season was one 16-week nightmare from which it seemed he couldn't wake up.
All of this has been rehashed because the first two weeks of this season look like a couple of perfect chances for the Pats' pass defense to shore up, accomplish some things and gain a little confidence. Locker, again making his first career start, is an ideal opponent for this defense at this point. And the fact that he won't have the guy who is sure to be his No. 1 target in the suspended Kenny Britt can only help.
The Titans are likely to feature three players in their passing game on Sunday starting with receiver Nate Washington, always a No. 3 type guy who exploded into a No. 1 last season with career highs in catches (74), yards (1,023) and TDs (seven), all in his seventh year in the league and fourth with Tennessee.
They will also look to get tight end Jared Cook (49 catches, 759 yards, three TDs) and wideout Kendall Wright (Robert Griffin's top target at Baylor), their first round pick from this season's draft, involved. Wright could pose some problems as a super athletic speedster who can jump through the roof.
Locker's offensive line has taken some hits since last season but it's a group that allowed only 24 sacks last year, second fewest in the league. The Pats never seem very interested in rushing the passer all that much, which could work in Locker's favor. But given his inexperience, don't be surprised if Pats' coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia dial up some added pressure throughout the afternoon.
This could be the defining match up of the game. Should the Pats get torched by Locker, it could be a signal that last year's woeful pass defense is still just that.
That seems more unlikely, though. Look for the Pats' to handle the Titans' passing game and force Locker into a long day.
Prediction: Patriots 33, Titans 20
The Pats haven't lost a season opener since 2003. And even though they're playing on the road in a tough environment, they have too much firepower on offense to let the Titans outscore them, particularly facing a QB as inexperienced as Locker, and even if the defense does look like it did for most of last year. If the O-line holds up and Brady has time to pick at the Titans' defense, this one could be a laugher. A great start to the 2012 season for New England.